Last night President Obama addressed the nation on a number of pressing issues ranging from Instagram to middle-class economics to the fact that climate change exists. The full transcript is available here, and if you’re interested in facial comparisons of Biden and Boehner, you can watch the whole thing as well.
Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the major points discussed. It doesn’t include all of them, because our time here on earth is limited, but it’s a lot of them.
Issues Obama Plans to Take Action On
Free community college
This had already been announced, but he brought it up again in this speech: the president wants to provide two years of community college to every citizen for free, so that “two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today.” The idea here is that this will make Americans more qualified for the workforce, since an increasing number of jobs require some higher education.
More childcare options made more affordable
Obama described childcare as a “national economic priority” and “not a side issue or women’s issue,” which many were thrilled to hear. Specifically, he wants to create “more slots” for childcare and create a new tax cut for families of “up to $3000 per child per year” as a way to make childcare for working parents more accessible.
Paid leave laws
The president pointed out how much more reasonable other countries’ workplace policies are, with their inclusion of paid sick leave and paid maternity leave, which help keep parents in the workforce and make sure families can eat even if the wage earner comes down with the flu. Obama says he’s going to be “taking new action to help states adopt paid leave laws of their own” — so, encouraging state governments to pass this legislation. He also indicated interest in “putting it to a vote here in Washington,” which would be a way of creating federal legislation that granted paid leave nationwide, but with the current climate in Congress it’s not clear how realistic that is (more on that soon!).
Equal pay and minimum wage
Obama explicitly asked Congress to pass a law “that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work.” If you’re wondering “doesn’t that law already exist? Didn’t I see a picture of Obama signing a bill with Lilly Ledbetter standing next to him?” the answer is “kinda.” The Fair Pay Act of 2009, the first bill that Obama signed into law as president, does address the pay discrimination suit Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. But it doesn’t guarantee equal pay; it address the statute of limitations on suing for pay discrimination (Ledbetter lost her suit because the court ruled that too much time had passed since the pay discrimination occurred). So, a federal law that successfully provides equal pay for women still doesn’t exist, but Obama would like it to. (The Equal Pay Act, originally passed in 1963, does exist, but hasn’t been entirely effective; in fact, up until 1972, it didn’t even cover “executives, administrators, outside salespeople, and professionals.”)
Obama also addressed the minimum wage, and while he didn’t directly say “we should raise the federal minimum wage,” he said “nothing helps families make ends meet like higher wages” and also delivered this zinger:
And to everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.
“Bipartisan infrastructure plans”
As part of his mission to make sure America stays economically competitive and to make outsourcing jobs unnecessary, Obama wants to “pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than thirty times as many jobs per year.” What’s an infrastructure plan? He didn’t go into a lot of detail, but did mention “modern ports, stronger bridges, faster trains and the fastest internet.”
Trade promotion authority
Obama wants to be granted trade promotion authority to oversee “strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe.” What does that mean? Also called “fast track negotiating authority,” this basically means Obama is asking Congress to grant him temporary power to broker international agreements that Congress can’t filibuster or amend (although they can choose to approve or disapprove them). The Obama administration has been trying to have this power granted to it since 2012. It’s a controversial power, and a bit alarming.
Precision Medicine Initiative
The president announced he was launching a “Precision Medicine Initiative,” which he said would “bring us closer to curing diseases like cancer and diabetes — and… give all of us access to the personalized information we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier.” How will that work? There’s some helpful explanation of it here, but basically the deal is that studying genetics has made it possible for us to identify not just a disease, but the specific molecular foundation of the disease, which varies from person to person. Within the group of people who have a certain disease, a certain percentage of them might have one genetic subtype of that disease — the disease can be traced back to a certain molecular configuration — and a certain percentage might have a different subtype. Medicine designed for the overall disease might not be effective for every genetic subtype, so precision medicine can create more targeted treatments that are specific to genetic subtype and are much more effective.
Internet and Space Travel
Obama indicated that he intends to “protect a free and open internet,” which seems like a reference to Net Neutrality. A few moments later, he threw out a medley of space travel related things which were, frankly, totally bonkers. First, he brought up “pushing out into the Solar System not just to visit, but to stay” as the kind of scientific progress he’d like to see America making; second, he casually mentioned a “re-energized” space program that’s planning on sending astronauts to Mars. If you were at this point thinking “didn’t we shut down our space program?” the answer is yes, we ended the NASA Space Shuttle program in 2011. I don’t know how we transitioned from that to a Mars mission. Obama also namedropped Scott Kelly, an astronaut who is going to “begin a year-long stay in space,” a terrifying and suspect concept for anyone who has ever been snowed into their house for 2+ days or seen the movie Moon.
In a nod to the 99% and how fucked our tax system is, Obama convivially suggested “let’s close loopholes that perpetuate wealth inequality.” There is virtually zero chance this will occur.
Obama took what is (upsettingly) to some a controversial stance, and reminded the audience that science has pretty clearly demonstrated that climate change is real. He reiterated America’s commitment to enacting policies that will alleviate climate change, and even said “I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts,” which is pretty direct.
Authorization to use military force against ISIS
After spending much of his speech congratulating his administration for de-escalating America’s military involvement overseas, Obama said he doesn’t want to get involved in “another ground war in the Middle East” but does want Congress to pass a resolution that will authorize the use of force against terrorist group ISIS. Congress is significantly more likely to be interested in this than closing tax loopholes.
Closing Guantanamo Bay
Obama declared he wants to “finish the job” as far as shutting down Gitmo, as part of America’s “profound commitment to justice.” There was no mention of force-feeding or other cruel or inhumane practices there.
Wow! Obama is really making moves his last two years, huh? Honestly, probably not. As you may remember from Schoolhouse Rock, the system of checks and balances means that the President can almost never accomplish anything on his own; he usually needs to get Congress on board with it, too. Since Congress is Republican right now — and has demonstrated an unprecedented overall reluctance to cooperate with the president on anything at all, ever — it’s unlikely that much of what was discussed here will ever become a reality. Pay attention to the phrasing Obama uses for each proposal — the things that are prefaced with “I urge Congress to” or “I will work with Congress to” are probably doomed. There are a few things — the yearlong space trip, the Precision Medicine Initiative — that appear to be already rolling, but for much of the rest of this, we’ll have to wait and see what actually happens.
Things Obama Talked About but Isn’t Taking Action On
As you’ve likely already heard, Obama became the first president ever to say “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.” Which is historic! It’s important to note, however, that he’s not introducing any new policies or proposing any legislation related to the protection or support of those groups. He did mention marriage equality, but less as a call to action and more of a suggestion that it’s something we’ve already succeeded in obtaining: “I’ve seen something like gay marriage go from a wedge issue used to drive us apart to a story of freedom across our country, a civil right now legal in states that seven in ten Americans call home.”
Obama also mentioned Ferguson and New York (it’s still not totally clear to me whether “New York” was a reference to Eric Garner or to Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu), but not in any way that suggested that any of those events represented a need for change to the justice system.
We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York. But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won’t rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift. Surely we can agree it’s a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together, and use that as a starting point for Democrats and Republicans, community leaders and law enforcement, to reform America’s criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all.
This mention came during the portion of the speech Obama had dedicated to “rebuilding trust” and emphasizing shared values over difference; in this context, it appears that not only did Obama not propose any action on this, but seems to be suggesting that we not ask for any. There isn’t even a broad recommendation being made, like Attorney General Holder did recently when he suggested that greater transparency about police deaths is needed. None of the names of those killed by police this year were mentioned.
He also made this statement, clearly referencing the language of the #BlackLivesMatter movement but avoiding the reality that it’s Black children, not every child, who are usually in danger:
I want our actions to tell every child, in every neighborhood: your life matters, and we are as committed to improving your life chances as we are for our own kids.
Obama also mentioned abortion and reproductive rights, but once again did so in a fashion that downplayed the reality of conflict around it rather than addressing it:
We still may not agree on a woman’s right to choose, but surely we can agree it’s a good thing that teen pregnancies and abortions are nearing all-time lows, and that every woman should have access to the health care she needs.
Similarly, he brought up immigration without specifically discussing what its future might be:
Yes, passions still fly on immigration, but surely we can all see something of ourselves in the striving young student, and agree that no one benefits when a hardworking mom is taken from her child, and that it’s possible to shape a law that upholds our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.
Much of the buzz about this year’s state of the union had to do with bipartisanship and the idea of an “olive branch” — could Obama build any goodwill with Republicans that might lead to getting something done in the two years he has left in office? The content of the speech is clearly reaching for this, with multiple references to what a “tight-knit family” America is, and calling for cooperation:
“If you share the broad vision I outlined tonight, join me in the work at hand. If you disagree with parts of it, I hope you’ll at least work with me where you do agree. And I commit to every Republican here tonight that I will not only seek out your ideas, I will seek to work with you to make this country stronger.”
If you were tracking Boehner’s facial expressions throughout the speech, you may not feel very hopeful about this bipartisan dream. We’ll see what 2015 brings us in terms of cooperation across the aisle.